Options for Europe in Gaza
Attempts by the US-Israel-Palestinian Authority presidency troika to overthrow Hamas have failed. Breaking down parts of the wall built by Israel along the Philadelphi Corridor marked another victory for the Islamic movement, which gained more popularity and is now in a position to control the Gaza-Egypt border. The Europeans were meant to monitor the Rafah crossing point, but what are they still doing there? The civilian EU border assistance mission (EUBAM-Rafah) has three options: leave, stay and do nothing, or engage. Leaving would be the most obvious option for the EU monitors: Brussels bows out of the border imbroglio, and lets Egypt sort out the mess. Egypt and Hamas already jointly resealed the border, and Hamas said European presence is undesirable. Palestinians do not look positively on EUBAM-Rafah for its failing to open the crossing and for sitting by and watching Israel launch regular incursions into Gaza in search of "terrorists", destroying civilian infrastructure and often killing women and children. However, due to the pioneering nature of this EU border assistance mission in the Middle East, withdrawing the European monitors would be considered a setback. In late 2005 Brussels hailed EUBAM-Rafah as a success for its rapid deployment capacity. As the EU struggles to define a common foreign policy, Brussels will not admit to the present uselessness of the monitoring mission. Despite its prolonged suspension, the second option for the EU is to stay put until the situation is more conducive to engage. Waiting for the situation -- the Palestinian plight -- to ameliorate is problematic for Europe. With every passing day, the EU's inability to play a productive role as border monitors decreases its legitimacy and erodes its credibility as a neutral third party. The EU was never really considered by Israel as a serious third party and was used by the US to provide some impartiality to the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November 2005. Since Hamas and Egypt now control the Rafah crossing, Israel no longer has veto power, which means that the AMA is no longer valid. The agreement was flawed anyhow: for security reasons, Israel maintained de facto control of the crossing, but Rafah is a town between Egypt and Gaza, split by the Palestinian-Egyptian border. Rafah does not border Israel, which therefore should never have had veto power over the crossing after its 2005 so-called "disengagement". More importantly still for EU engagement, Brussels should have made Israel's relinquishing control a precondition to sending monitors there. From the outset, with or without the subsequent election of Hamas and the severe Israeli siege of Gaza, the EU presence was doomed. Brussels adopted the US-Israeli policy of thwarting the Islamic movement, not recognising Hamas as the democratically elected government even though the EU observed the elections as free and fair. This policy contradicts the AMA signed with the previous Palestinian Authority before Hamas, makes the EU seem a weak third party devoid of political integrity, and damages its image in the Middle East. In ostracising Hamas, the EU also contradicts its own neighbourhood policy of coexistence between cultures and peoples around the Mediterranean. Gaza was once a historical crossroads on the southeastern end of the sea, and still has the potential to be an important pivot portal for the EU to enter the Middle East. The third option, and most productive for the EU, is to engage all parties in the conflict. For the EU to participate in Gaza's border management, Brussels needs to renegotiate the AMA to include EU assistance for coordinated Egyptian-Palestinian security measures. The joint closing of their border demonstrated that Egypt and the Palestinians could eventually move towards a new agreement on border management in Gaza. Hamas may also begin to print its own money, which will further consolidate its power, and potentially lead to a single mini-state. The EU is late again, but can still push to open the Rafah crossing which is technically prepared with updated material to facilitate the rapid passage of peoples and goods and hence spur economic growth. The EU can also refurbish the Rafah airport and Gaza's seaports, as stipulated in the AMA. The EU can end the Israeli naval siege of Gaza, as EU member states did with the Maritime Task Force of UNIFIL-II along the coast of Lebanon, assuming Israel's proclaimed responsibility of stopping arms from entering Gaza. In order to help restore the coalition government comprised of Hamas and Fatah, which is really the only way forward, the EU can condition its more assertive engagement on strict compliance to agreements. These steps are not only vital to EU interests in the Mediterranean, but would also recuperate for it a degree of legitimacy in the Middle East. As it stands now, EU monitors in Gaza are irrelevant, and the Spaniards, Italians, Swedes, French, Dutch and Germans might as well go home. The original text of this article appeared on Al-Ahram Weekly Online and The Daily Star. The article has been reproduced with the permission of the author.